Surrounded by shiny new blocks of office buildings, a huge medieval-looking graffiti-covered warehouse stands proudly whilst sticking out like a sore thumb. This is Les Frigos, a city-owned building-turned-artists’-squat in the 13th arrondissement not far from the Seine. Every spring, the annual Portes Ouvertes (open doors) weekend grants walk-in visitors a chance to visit the 90-or-so ateliers within its walls. The doors opened at 2:00, and already there was an impressive turnout: from the metro station, all I had to do was to follow the camera-toting crowd to find my way there.
Built in 1921, Les Frigos used to be a hangar for refrigerated railway wagons. It closed down and was abandoned until the end of the ’60s. The SNCF, its owners since 1945, decided to rent out parts of the warehouse in 1980. A demolition of the depot was scheduled around the mid-’80s, but by then artists had already been squatting here – and it was transformed into some sort of artists’ mothership, taken under the wing of the Paris Rive Gauche program.
With around 200 artists and 90 studios, it’s no surprise the walls are covered graffiti as far as the eye can see – you could almost imagine the artists tagging the walls during their artistic downtime, lost in thought, pondering their next project. Huge pipes cling to the walls like rusty snakes, glowering at the people crowding the hallways under harsh fluorescent lights. In the hall are rows of mailboxes – taped with stickers and tagged so many times that the names are barely readable.
The journey into Les Frigos begins – and ends – with its winding stairwell – where every possible surface is covered in paint. These stairs are the only way to get to the other floors (there were elevators, but I didn’t dare try to take them). Each floor takes you on an expedition into the unknown, every studio is a cave of surprises.
The entire building resembles a laboratory of creative madmen: one moment you’d be in a serene, white-walled sculptor’s studio with Bach playing quietly in the background, and the next thing you know you’re in a studio repair house for pianos and other musical instruments. In the span of an afternoon I’d taken in a jazz duo’s piano-and-drums concert, watched a sound engineer lay in tracks to a video, and gazed at whimsical black-and-white photographs taped to walls.
Don’t come here expecting a museum – it’s not the Louvre, and you may not find some of the art to your liking, but there’s no doubt that this place, like 59 Rivoli, plays an important role in Paris’s contemporary art scene.
It’s one hell of a place to see artists, musicians and other artistic souls in their element. If you missed their Portes Ouvertes, you could always drop by on the off chance that a friendly artist could grant you access to their studio.
As an added bonus, try the Restaurant La Maison des Frigos, where the chef Mariko serves you with only the freshest dishes made from seasonal ingredients.
19 rue des Frigos 75013
Metro: Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand